Aging Forward: Help and Hope for Hoarders

Patrick Arbore
By Patrick Arbore June 15, 2014 18:52

Patrick Arbore, Ed.D.

As summer arrives, you may have completed what is an annual ritual for many: spring cleaning.

We typically sort through our closets, attics and garages to recycle, give away or throw out items that are of no further use. This not only clears space for new purchases we might actually use, but provides breathing room, order and that comforting sense that everything is in its proper place.

But for some people, there is no spring cleaning – ever.

These people save everything. Long-neglected projects sit unfinished in basements, garages and yards; old cars and rusting machinery sink into the soil; stacks of old newspapers and magazines teeter precariously in hallways; makeup drawers explode with powder, creams and other cosmetics.

The result? Homes filled to the walls and ceilings with so much stuff that people can no longer move freely from room to room.

You may be familiar with the rationalizations and may even use them yourself. “One day I will fix this mower, clean out the mess in the garage, put away the Christmas decorations, pick up all the clothes on the floor … one day.”

If your home and yard are crammed with so much stuff that it has become unsafe for people and even for household pets, you may be a hoarder. In fact, if the pets are numerous and always underfoot, you may be hoarding animals as well, an inclination theorized to be similar to other hoarding behavior.

But don’t rush to judgment about “cat ladies.” Anyone can become a hoarder. Early research suggests there may be more female hoarders than male hoarders, but more study is needed.

This much is known: Hoarding is a compulsive behavior that affects people of all ages. Its three key behaviors are compulsive acquisition, difficulty discarding possessions and disorganization in many areas of life.

Hoarding often worsens with age, in part due to physical frailty and dementia. Typically, however, it begins in the early teen years. Problems experienced as children often trigger the behavior, including inability to manage anxiety, according to Smith College’s Randy Frost, a pioneer in the field.

When young people hoard, their vast accumulations typically draw few negative comments. Instead they are deemed eccentric, creative, busy or unique. Only when hoarders age do eyes begin to roll.

Frost suggests that some hoarders are unusually sensitive to anxiety and distress. Even small amounts of anxiety lead them to seek extreme ways – such as collecting anything and everything – to avoid or escape these unpleasant feelings.

While most people who hoard are mentally competent, Frost says, those with dementia may pack away even more items because of their short-term memory loss.

Safety risks and social isolation are the most serious impacts of hoarding.

Unsanitary conditions may pose a health hazard. If an older person trips over accumulated possessions and falls into yet more clutter, he or she could break a hip or fracture his or her skull. Paramedics may find it difficult to remove the injured victim from a house choked with items collected over decades.

There are also social consequences. A self-conscious hoarder may not want family or friends to visit a home overwhelmed by clutter.

How do we help a person change this potentially dangerous behavior? If your friend or relative has been hoarding for decades, be patient, caring and compassionate. If you are unable to do this, ask someone else to intervene.

Hoarding is hard to understand for those who have never had the problem. It may be impossible to comprehend how passionate a friend or family member can become about what appears to be junk.

With nearly a million Americans exhibiting hoarding behavior, families and communities are working with public health departments, mental health associations and other groups to help their friends dig out from under the burden of too much stuff.

Unfortunately, we are only in the beginning stages of understanding how to help hoarders. One promising approach is cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps hoarders examine their beliefs about themselves in order to quit compulsive behaviors. Groups such as Clutterers Anonymous can be helpful but are not a cure.

Many people learn about hoarding by watching the television show “Hoarders.” This type of “reality” show is designed as a network moneymaker but offers a glimpse of the very real pain that hoarders experience.

Yet there is hope. One 69-year-old woman I know was an out-of-control hoarder at risk of losing her home due to debt from compulsive shopping. As we worked together, it became clear she was suffering from childhood trauma: ungrieved losses, and fear and anxiety about health issues and death.

Though she has had setbacks due to stressful events, she continues to make progress. She makes monthly detailed commitments to abstain from compulsive shopping, participates in grief groups, and reaches out to friends and family members when she feels anxious or upset. She now feels that her life is under control.

Her success shows that hoarders can change and by doing so, improve the quality of their lives.

Patrick Arbore is the founder and director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services at San Francisco’s Institute on Aging, ioaging.org. He also founded and directs the Friendship Line, a 24-hour help line for older adults coping with anxiety, grief, loneliness and other issues: 800-971-0016.

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

 

Patrick Arbore
By Patrick Arbore June 15, 2014 18:52
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